The Million Pound Note (1954)

million pound note

If you needed a reason to be charmed by Gregory Peck, The Million Pound Note does the trick. But then again, so does any number of the actor’s films. Notorious nice guy and paragon of the incorruptible everyman, Peck just can’t help himself when it comes to winning over his audience. Even when he isn’t the dashing bachelor reporter or the righteous Southern lawyer, he possesses an effortless allure that’s impossible to turn away from. As Henry Adams, a penniless American stranded in turn of the century England, Peck transforms from a scrubby seaman (inasmuch as the actor can be made scrubby) into a dapper millionaire, all on account of a playful bet by two wealthy brothers.

Adapted from a story by Mark Twain, the movie explores the artifice of wealth, elbowing society not so much for the way it worships real money, and power, but the mere suggestion of it. Oliver Montpelier (Ronald Squire) believes that a million pound note will convince anyone of the holder’s worth while his brother Roderick (Wilfrid Hyde-White) maintains the actual exchange of cash counts for something. Henry gets caught in this game that only the obscenely rich can initiate and immediately reaps the dividends. He sates his empty stomach on a hearty lunch and several tankards of ale and then tries to exchange his rags for more respectable attire.

The film adopts a very Twain-like tone in the way it laughs at the pretense of enormous wealth. At first, condescension oozes out of shopkeepers suspicious of Henry’s entitled manner. The smugness immediately dissipates when he presents his note, and upturned noses are pointed down. Word gets around that there’s an eccentric American millionaire about town, and the fear of offending someone in this moneyed class leads people to give into their assumptions. He’s allowed to acquire everything on credit, from a simple top hat to a stay in luxury hotel suite.

Casting an actor with Peck’s reputation emphasizes the absurdity, contrasting his sensible character with the frivolous and disingenuous nature money seems to inspire. He mines a lot of comedy out of these misunderstandings as Henry, in various states of bemusement, can’t quite believe his luck. Being the honest Gregory Peck-like man that he is though, Henry tries to juggle the fawning elites with a proper sense of self-restraint. He befriends a fellow pauper (Reginald Beckwith) and the two bond over the fact that they are trespassers to this paper world. Still, he can’t help but enjoy the pleasures that come to a man with one million pounds to spare even if he is also conflicted about the deception. The film begins to lag at the halfway point when the plot turns into variations on the same theme, and the writers belatedly introduce a love interest to energize the movie. Henry’s attachment to aristocrat Portia (Jane Griffiths) furthers his misgivings since he knows there’s an end date to this charade.

Alt Title: Man with a Million
Released: 1954
Prod: John Bryan, Ronald Neame
Dir: Ronald Neame
Writer: Jill Craigie
Cast: Gregory Peck, Ronald Squire, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Jane Griffiths, Joyce Grenfell, A. E. Matthews, Maurice Denham, Reginald Beckwith
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016